Michelangelo (1475-1564), arguably one of the most inspired creators in the history of art
and, with Leonardo da Vinci, the most potent force in the Italian High Renaissance. As a
sculptor, architect, painter, and poet, he exerted a tremendous influence on his
contemporaries and on subsequent Western art in general.
A Florentine – although born March 6, 1475, in the small village of Caprese near Arezzo
– Michelangelo continued to have a deep attachment to his city, its art, and its culture
throughout his long life. He spent the greater part of his adulthood in Rome, employed by
the popes; characteristically, however, he left instructions that he be buried in Florence, and
his body was placed there in a fine monument in the church of Santa Croce.
Early Life in Florence
Michelangelo’s father, a Florentine official named Ludovico Buonarroti with connections to the ruling Medici
family, placed his 13-year-old son in the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. After about two years,
Michelangelo studied at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens and shortly thereafter was invited into the
household of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent. There he had an opportunity to converse with the younger
Medicis, two of whom later became popes (Leo X and Clement VII). He also became acquainted with such
humanists as Marsilio Ficino and the poet Angelo Poliziano, who were frequent visitors. Michelangelo produced at
least two relief sculptures by the time he was 16 years old, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the
Stairs (both 1489-92, Casa Buonarroti, Florence), which show that he had achieved a personal style at a very early
His patron Lorenzo died in 1492; two years later Michelangelo fled Florence, when the Medici were temporarily
Expelled. He settled for a time in Bologna, where in 1494 and 1495 he executed several marble statuettes for the
Arca (Shrine) di San Domenico in the Church of San Domenico.
Michelangelo then went to Rome, where he was able to examine many newly unearthed classical statues and
Ruins. He soon produced his first large-scale sculpture, the over-life-size Bacchus (1496-98, Bargello, Florence).
One of the few works of pagan rather than Christian subject matter made by the master, it rivaled ancient
Statuary, the highest mark of admiration in Renaissance Rome.
At about the same time, Michelangelo also did the marble Piet (1498-1500), still in its original place in Saint
Peter’s Basilica. One of the most famous works of art, the Piet was probably finished before Michelangelo was
25 years old and it is the only work he ever signed. The youthful Mary is shown seated majestically, holding the
dead Christ across her lap, a theme borrowed from northern European art. Instead of revealing extreme grief,
Mary is restrained, and her expression is one of resignation. In this work, Michelangelo summarizes the
sculptural innovations of his 15th-century predecessors such as Donatello, while ushering in the new
monumentality of the High Renaissance style of the 16th century.
The high point of Michelangelo’s early style is the gigantic (4.34 m/14.24 ft) marble David (Accademia, Florence),
which he produced between 1501 and 1504, after returning to Florence. The Old Testament hero is depicted by
Michelangelo as a lithe nude youth, muscular and alert, looking off into the distance as if sizing up the enemy
Goliath, whom he has not yet encountered. The fiery intensity of David’s facial expression is termed terribilit, a
feature characteristic of many of Michelangelo’s figures and of his own personality. David, Michelangelo’s most
famous sculpture, became the symbol of Florence and originally was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in front of
the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall. With this statue Michelangelo proved to his contemporaries that he
not only surpassed all modern artists, but also the Greeks and Romans, by infusing formal beauty with powerful
While still occupied with the David, Michelangelo was given an opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a painter
with the commission of a mural, the Battle of Cascina, destined for the Sala dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo
Vecchio, opposite Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. Neither artist carried his assignment beyond the stage of a
cartoon, a full-scale preparatory drawing. Michelangelo created a series of nude and clothed figures in a wide
variety of poses and positions that are a prelude to his next major project, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the
Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1505 for two commissions. The most important one was
for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Working high above the chapel floor, lying on his back on
scaffolding, Michelangelo painted, between 1508 and 1512, some of the finest pictorial images of all time. On the
vault of the papal chapel, he devised an intricate system of decoration that included nine scenes from the Book of
Genesis, beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness and including the Creation of Adam, the Creation of
Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. These centrally located narratives are surrounded
by alternating images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones, by other Old Testament subjects, and by the
In order to prepare for this enormous work, Michelangelo drew numerous figure studies and cartoons, devising
scores of figure types and poses. These awesome, mighty images, demonstrating Michelangelo’s masterly
understanding of human anatomy and movement, changed the course of painting in the West.
Before the assignment of the Sistine ceiling in 1505, Michelangelo had been commissioned by Julius II to produce
his tomb, which was planned to be the most magnificent of Christian times. It was to be located in the new Basilica
of St. Peter’s, then under construction. Michelangelo enthusiastically went ahead with this challenging project,
which was to include more than 40 figures, spending months in the quarries to obtain the necessary Carrara
marble. Due to a mounting shortage of money, however, the pope ordered him to put aside the tomb project in
favor of painting the Sistine ceiling.
When Michelangelo went back to work on the tomb, he redesigned it on a much more modest scale. Nevertheless,
Michelangelo made some of his finest sculpture for the Julius Tomb, including the Moses (circa 1515), the central
figure in the much reduced monument now located in Rome’s church of San Pietro in Vincoli. The muscular
patriarch sits alertly in a shallow niche, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, his long beard entwined in
his powerful hands. He looks off into the distance as if communicating with God. Two other superb statues, the
Bound Slave and the Dying Slave (both c. 1510-13), Louvre, Paris, demonstrate Michelangelo’s approach to
carving. He conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the block. By removing the excess stone, the form was
released. Here, as is frequently the case with his sculpture, Michelangelo left the statues unfinished (non-finito),
either because he was satisfied with them as is, or because he no longer planned to use them.
The project for the Julius Tomb required architectural planning, but Michelangelo’s activity as an architect only
began in earnest in 1519, with the plan for the faade (never executed) of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence,
where he had once again taken up residence. In the 1520s he also designed the Laurentian Library and its elegant
entrance hall adjoining San Lorenzo, although these structures were finished only decades later. Michelangelo
took as a starting point the wall articulation of his Florentine predecessors, but he infused it with the same surging
energy that characterizes his sculpture and painting. Instead of being obedient to classical Greek and Roman
practices, Michelangelo used motifs – columns, pediments, and brackets – for a personal and expressive
purpose. Michelangelo, a partisan of the republican faction, participated in the 1527-29 war against the Medici
and supervised Florentine fortifications.
While residing in Florence for this extended period, Michelangelo also undertook – between 1519 and 1534 –
the commission of the Medici Tombs for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo. His design called for two large wall
tombs facing each other across the high, domed room. One was intended for Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino;
the other for Giuliano de’ Medici, duke of Nemours. The two complex tombs were conceived as representing
opposite types: the Lorenzo, the contemplative, introspective personality; the Giuliano, the active, extroverted
one. He placed magnificent nude personifications of Dawn and Dusk beneath the seated Lorenzo, Day and Night
beneath Giuliano; reclining river gods (never executed) were planned for the bottom. Work on the Medici Tombs
continued long after Michelangelo went back to Rome in 1534, although he never returned to his beloved native
In Rome, in 1536, Michelangelo was at work on the Last Judgment for the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel, which
he finished in 1541. The largest fresco of the Renaissance, it depicts Judgment Day. Christ, with a clap of thunder,
puts into motion the inevitable separation, with the saved ascending on the left side of the painting and the
damned descending on the right into a Dantesque hell. As was his custom, Michelangelo portrayed all the figures
nude, but prudish draperies were added by another artist (who was dubbed the ‘breeches-maker’) a decade later,
as the cultural climate became more conservative. Michelangelo painted his own image in the flayed skin of St.
Bartholomew. Although he was also given another painting commission, the decoration of the Pauline Chapel in
the 1540s, his main energies were directed toward architecture during this phase of his life.
In 1538-39 plans were under way for the remodeling of the buildings surrounding the Campidoglio (Capitol) on the
Capitoline Hill, the civic and political heart of the city of Rome. Although Michelangelo’s program was not carried
out until the late 1550s and not finished until the 17th century, he designed the Campidoglio around an oval shape,
with the famous antique bronze equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the center. For the
Palazzo dei Conservatori he brought a new unity to the public building facade, at the same time that he preserved
Michelangelo’s crowning achievement as an architect was his work at St. Peter’s Basilica, where he was made
chief architect in 1546. The building was being constructed according to Donato Bramante’s plan, but
Michelangelo ultimately became responsible for the altar end of the building on the exterior and for the final form
During his long lifetime, Michelangelo was an intimate of princes and popes, from Lorenzo de’ Medici to Leo X,
Clement VIII, and Pius III, as well as cardinals, painters, and poets. Neither easy to get along with nor easy to
understand, he expressed his view of himself and the world even more directly in his poetry than in the other arts.
Much of his verse deals with art and the hardships he underwent, or with Neoplatonic philosophy and personal
The great Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto wrote succinctly of this famous artist: ‘Michael more than mortal,
divine angel’. Indeed, Michelangelo was widely awarded the epithet ‘divine’ because of his extraordinary
accomplishments. Two generations of Italian painters and sculptors were impressed by his treatment of the human
figure: Raphael, Annibale Carracci, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Titian. His dome for
St. Peter’s became the symbol of authority, as well as the model, for domes all over the Western world; the
majority of state capitol buildings in the U.S., as well as the Capitol in Washington, D.C., are derived from it.